We’ve all seen it: people behaving in one way in one setting, then behaving very differently in another setting. For example, in a formal meeting with top level leaders – a manager is well-prepared, considered, respectful, agreeable, even guarded. Once out of the meeting and back to a small, informal peer-group discussion, that person is more relaxed, outspoken, possibly also more competitive and opinionated. There is a logical explanation for this – but let’s examine what’s happening here for a moment.

Bubbles of Culture

We often think about ‘culture’ as being reflected in a hefty set of relatively fixed, habitual behaviours. At work, a company’s culture is rooted in its history; in how people have experienced their time there. The behaviours behind a company’s culture are often practiced at such an unconscious level, they are difficult to name, and the implications are hard to understand. We see culture as a huge, tricky area.

A good proportion of leaders get that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, as articulated by Peter Drucker, but are frustrated because it’s one area they can’t fully control. Communication departments and agencies deploy programs that attempt to change company culture over months or years, but not all deliver much.

OBSERVATION 1: There is no single ‘culture’ in practice by people in an organization.  There are bubbles of culture, some more variable than others.

Let’s come at this from another angle.

Culture at the Team Level

I was reflecting on how a recent workshop went.  As facilitator, I’d been briefed by the team leader about how difficult it was to get the team members to talk. “You’re not going to get them to open up,” he said.  Yet, as an external presence, warming up the group of 11 people by starting with questions on what makes an effective dialogue, I got the right responses.  Don’t interrupt. Leave status at the door.  Respect that people think and feel is real for them at that time…  By getting people into a zone like this, you are setting up a new culture bubble in the room.

During the course of that workshop, more honesty, openness and clarity emerged in the team because they felt their inputs were safe and that the issues were being dealt with in a non-personal, constructive way. The workshop took 3 hours.

OBSERVATION 2: Bubbles of culture can be created within minutes with the right conditions in place.

Effective Behaviours

People share goals at the team level.  And we know that teams (bringing together people with different experiences and values) are more effective than individuals. However, effective collaboration is not merely a case of putting people with relevant knowledge together. Team members face the challenge of integrating their different perspectives and developing shared cognition (a shared understanding) of the issues they work with.  This is driven by behaviours.

Research in the social sciences, (van den Bossche et al., 2010) tells us that team effectiveness links with learning behaviours in 4 areas:

  1. psychological safety – a shared belief that the interpersonal risk taking will not carry negative consequences
  2. team cohesion – shared commitment to achieve shared goals
  3. group potency – the collective belief of team members that the group can be effective (confidence)
  4. interdependence – a) reliability of interconnections between tasks; b) personal benefits or costs depends on goal achievement.

The extent to which these behaviours are present determine how much of a shared understanding exists at the team level, leading on from which are effective decisions and actions. Therefore, any desire to change the culture of an organization would likely orient towards these behaviours. And they can exist for as long as people believe they fit.

OBSERVATION 3: A bubble of culture exists for as long as people believe it fits the current context.

The bubble bursts when people, particularly those in positions of power, don’t believe the behaviours in that bubble fit the context anymore, leading them to behave differently. And what causes that disbelief?  A number of things, in my experience: habits / mental models, changing circumstances, differing contexts, and peer pressure, among other factors.

Regardless, I think it’s important to acknowledge that multiple cultures co-exist within a wider culture. That culture links more to context at the team level than at the organization level. That it is possible for people to move into new or existing sub-cultures within minutes.